I learned how to ride a two wheeler when I was six years old; it was 1974. I remember being in front of my apartment in Flushing, Queens and my dad held the back of the bike seat and ran down the sidewalk along side me and when he let go I didn’t even realize it and I just kept going. What a sense of freedom! My bike was orange, with an an orange banana seat with flames on it. The handlebars had orange streamers. Trust me, it was super cool. It was also the 70s.
I rode my bike all over my neighborhood, on the sidewalk, on the street, sometimes going 15 blocks away from my house, even though I was only 6 years old. I guess I had bad parents. I rode that bike across 164th Street. I would climb to the top of what seemed like a really big hill, but looking at it now on Google Maps, it does not seem all that big. I would wait for the light to turn green, and then ride, no hands, down that hill, through the four lane intersection of 164th street and two more blocks to my house. I would then turn around and do it all over again. I never once worried about whether I could get up that hill.
When I got on my bike, I didn’t think about what kind of shorts or shoes I was wearing. I didn’t have gloves or a helmet or fancy sunglasses. I didn’t count the miles or keep track of my heart rate. I just got on my bike and went.
Oh how times have changed.
When I started cycling as an adult, I immediately noticed all the gear: padded shorts, special shoes, gloves, helmets, socks, cycling jerseys, bike pumps, bike seats, tubes, hex wrenches. Did I need all of that to ride a bike? How hard was this going to be? Was I going to need a second job to buy all this stuff? Was I really going to have to wear spandex?
If you want to start cycling, here are some suggestions about what you need and what you can live without.
Obviously you need a bike, but you need a bike that fits you and fits the kind of riding you want to do. No matter what kind of bike you have, if you have not ridden it in a while, you should take it to your local bike shop. A good bike shop won’t pressure you to buy a new bike if you are not ready to do that and they will tune up the bike you have and let you know if there are any issues. You want to make sure that your bike fits you properly, that you have the right seat, that your tires/tubes are in good shape and your chain is not going to break. A good bike mechanic can tell you all of these things usually in a few minutes.
If you don’t have a bike, I strongly recommend that you do not go and buy one at a chain store. Visit a local bike shop and get a bike that fits you. Finding a bike that fits is like finding jeans that fit, but without the crying. We have several great bike shops in York County so shop local. If you do buy one at a chain store, visit your local bike shop to have them look it over for you and help get the fit right. A good shop won’t mind doing this even if you didn’t purchase the bike from them; they want you coming back for all the other gear!
Back in the 70s I don’t even think they made helmets or maybe my family was just too poor to get me one because I rode everywhere with my little 6 year old head exposed to the possibility of serious trauma. Luckily it all worked out. These days, we know better. Get a helmet. It does not have to be a $100 helmet. But it does have to be one that is made for biking and it needs to fit you properly.
Bike Tubes and Pumps:
Did you know there is a difference between a bike tire and a bike tube? Yeah, neither did I. Tubes go in the tire. When you get a flat, it is almost always that your tube is flat and your tire is fine. You just need to replace the tube. Which is good because tubes are pretty cheap.
Tubes come in all kinds of difference sizes and the best way to determine what size your bike uses is to ask your bike mechanic. Tubes also have different valves: schrader and presta. Not sure what the difference is? Yeah, neither did I. Here’s a picture of what the two look like. A Schrader valve is the same valve you find on a car tire. You usually find those valves on mountain bikes and hybrid bikes. Presta valves are usually on road bike tubes and they are thinner – and fancy, to go with those fancy road bikers.
Whatever kind of tubes you have, you need a pump that fits the valve you have. A lot of bike pumps have the ability to work with both kinds of valves. And yes, you need a bike pump. You need to pump up your tires several times a week. I keep my road bike tires pumped up to 120 psi and my mountain bike pumped up to 65 psi. Riding a bike on semi-flat tires is exhausting. Just like you get better gas mileage in your car if you have more air in your car tires, you use less energy yourself when you have more air in your bike tires.
I am on a personal mission to make sure people pump up their tires. I have been known to stop people biking on the rail trail and force them to allow me to add air to their tubes. Is that weird? Maybe. But they always thank me. Maybe they are just thanking me for leaving. But I like to think they are thanking me for helping them enjoy their ride.
Ahhh, the spandex. Do you need it? No.
Here are my rules for clothing:
1. Make sure your pants won’t get caught in the chain.
2. Make sure your shorts are not so short that your thighs rub against the seat.
3. Wear clothes that keep you cool/warm and comfortable.
4. If you want, buy some padded bike shorts – either mountain bike shorts – which are baggy and not made of spandex – or road bike shorts – which are spandex. Oh – and you can wear mountain bike shorts on your road bike - I do it all the time.
Can you use just any old seat on your bike? Absolutely not. I cannot stress this enough. Go to the bike shop and look at the gender specific bike seats they have. Yeah, that’s right, I said it: gender specific – whatever you have, make sure you protect it. If you are going to make one customization to your bike, changing the seat is the one to make.
Water Bottle Cage:
My husband didn’t have one of these on his 10 speed Schwinn that he was apparently hiding in the garage, unbeknownst to me, for the first 8 years of our marriage. When I started biking he took that puppy out of the garage, dusted it off, and proceeded to drill two holes in an empty Campbell’s soup can and he screwed that onto his bike, where the water cage should go. True story. You too can use a Campbell’s soup can for your water cage, or you can buy an actual water cage. You decide what will work best for you – but you are going to need to drink water while you are biking so just make sure you have some with you. (But don’t drink too much or you will be looking for a bathroom . . . that’s a whole blog post by itself: Dawn’s Search for Bathrooms While Biking.)
Bike shoes are complicated. There are SPD shoes and road bike shoes, but they are not really bike specific. Both of these shoes clip into your pedals (but they are called “clipless”. Why are they called clipless if they are actually clips? There’s actually a good reason for that, but I don’t remember what it is).
There are people who swear by shoes that clip in, and I am one of them. And there are people who think that people who wear shoes that clip in are crazy. Acutally, being clipped in is not as weird as it sounds, and getting in and out of the clips is simple. Once you start using clips you might find it hard to ride a bike without them because you will get used to using your hamstrings to pull up your leg and not just push down using your quads. The best part about getting shoes that clip into your pedals is when you fall for the first time and everyone gets to laugh at you.
But you don’t need special shoes to bike; that’s a purchase you can make later on, after you become one of us.
You should bring a spare tube with you, even if you don’t know how to change your own tube (which you will eventually need to learn how to do) because even if you can’t change the flat, usually someone else you are riding with will be able to to. A CO2 cartridge and tire lever would be helpful as well. My suggestion is that you let the mechanics at your bike shop show you how to change your tube. On mountain bikes and hybrids, it’s pretty easy; on road bikes it is like trying to fit into your Barbie doll’s clothes after you just finished a hot dog eating contest.
Usually when I am changing the tube on my road bike, I fight to get the tire off, and after about 10 minutes of me cursing, I get it off, I put the new tube in, I then fight with the tire to get it back on. At this point, I am not only cursing but I am often crying too. I get the tire back on, and then I pump up the tube, only to have that tube get pinched between the tire and the rim, so it pops and I have to start all over, and then the C02 cartridge freezes and burns my fingers and I lose the cap to my valve and then it starts to rain. Biking is fun.
A few suggestions for changing road bike tubes:
1. Use Kevlar road bike tires because the bead is easier to bend making it easier to get the tire on and off the rim.
2. Get a mini bike pump you can strap to your bike in case your C02 cartridge fails.
3. Bring two tubes.
4. Make sure your cell phone is charged and don’t be afraid to call for help.
One Final Thing:
Cool sunglasses – get a pair. It makes the ride so much sweeter. And if your sunglasses are super cool, no one will notice the spandex you are wearing as you are standing on the side of the road, crying and cursing at your bike while you try to change your flat tube in the rain.